Metallica jettisoned most of what made them an astounding pop-cultural force about halfway through their eponymous 1991 commercial breakthrough — the "black album" — and did away with everything else that made them even remotely interesting or laudable for its follow-up, the incredibly aptly-named Load.
I honestly believe that I say this not out of a former fan's mass-acceptance sour grapes, but rather because when Metallica made one of the most blatantly compromising bids for wider popularity in the history of rock 'n' roll, what they traded for (even greater) stardom was everything they were.
The overnight haircuts and piercings were self-conscious to the point of silliness, sure. But had Load and what came after showcased one-tenth the innovation, identity and visceral commitment of their first four albums, they could've worn jester's outfits and dunce caps and I would've closed my eyes and listened repeatedly.
Those songs, however, were and remain shite, half-assed attempts at lowbrow rock by a band that doesn't know how, and predicated on the woefully misguided notion that James Hetfield actually singing would be as compelling as him gnashing.
Now, we find the most successful metal band since Zeppelin revisiting its thrashy origins and providing one hell of a persuasive argument for the validity of that old adage about how you can't go home again. St. Anger is a pretty awful album, and though it's musically far more metallic and frenetic than the band's '90s releases, it's bad because of them, or at least because of the concessions to accessibility that went into them.
The jagged riffs in the intros to tunes like "Frantic," "Some Kind of Monster" and "Invisible Kid" may recall the Metallica of yore (albeit in a "cool," White Zombie/groovecore-informed sort of way), but these guys have written too many tunes like "The Memory Remains" to ever capably kick out something comparable to "Damage, Inc."
Some of these songs initially show a lot of promise, despite self-indulgent production issues — yes, Lars' snare sounds like the world's smallest, most annoying timpani — only to get slaughtered by both Hetfield's lyrics and insistence that his vocal ability transcends more than one dimension.
It seems the whiplash cadence, malevolent fiction and sociopolitical rhetoric of his early style is on permanent hiatus. Even St. Anger's most rabid rhythms are subjected to pointlessly repetitive experiments in wordplay ("Frantic," "Dirty Window," "My World"); stylized, overwrought near-melody (for a particularly crass example, check the breakdown in "Invisible Kid"); and vastly oversimplified introspection (pick a song, any song).
Ostensibly, St. Anger was supposed to be a sign of rejuvenation, a damn-the-torpedoes expression of new motivation and solidarity following the lineup shifts, trips to rehab and so forth.
Some of the music supports that supposition. Most of the disc, however, just serves as a reminder that Metallica used to shred any and all cliched metal preconceptions, only to later embrace them so heartily that when it came time to get lean and mean again, they couldn't. 1/2—Scott Harrell
The Early Recordings, Volume 1
Daniel Johnston, a deeply provocative and earnest songwriter, has for years been quietly penning the kind of pop masterpieces that most of his musical peers could only hope to. Rarely do songs approach the level of tender honesty that Johnston achieves, and this two-CD set of his first home-taped recordings (Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain) showcase a talent of limited technical ability but inexhaustible creativity. His life story is only slightly overshadowed by his talent: The son of devoutly Christian fundamentalist parents, he left West Virginia in the early '80s bound for Texas, where he sold corn dogs at the carnival. Settling in Austin, he gained a cult following by giving away tapes to whomever would listen and gradually caught the attention of such rock deities as Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam. It's worthwhile to note that Johnston confronts an extended (and sometimes dangerous) battle with manic depression, which has been an occasionally misguided focal point for listeners. And while this is important in understanding some of his obsessions (Captain America, Casper the Friendly Ghost and monkeys being among them), the genius of his songwriting cannot be emphasized enough. The Early Recordings, however, are not for the masses. Crudely recorded in his parents' basement with only a piano and a cassette deck, one first wonders whether these are the result of a wildly imaginative child or a carefully-constructed gimmick. Songs stop and begin abruptly, sometimes accompanied by his mother's commentary or television noise. With the recent surge in popularity among lo-fi tape deck recordists (see Wesley Willis, The Mountain Goats and the long-past rotten Moldy Peaches), it is refreshing to see one of them finally laying claim to the throne. —Mark Sanders
Thank You For Giving Me Your Valuable Time
Kaada, an enigmatic young producer from Norway, mines the sacred vaults of 1960s American pop records and reinvents them for your listening pleasure. Sometimes manufacturing entire songs from a single line, he finds comfort in repetition for repetition's sake, rarely making an effort at connecting to anything more significant. Ironically, the recordings he draws so much inspiration from contain everything that Thank You For Giving Me Your Valuable Time lacks: passion. The songs have less emotional impact than music coming from the overhead speakers in a grocery store. It is listenable (if only for a couple of times) and it does have promising moments of outright catchiness, but Kaada fails to convince his audience that he is any more sincere than the overtly snide album title and pinstripe-suit cover photo would suggest. On "Care," he manages to sample Juanita Rodgers and Conway Twitty in a kitschy, comical way, but even this falls short of brilliant — this is well-trodden territory that fails to distinguish him from other producers. He fares slightly better on tracks like "No You Don't" and "Black California," with infectious drum loops and almost-hummable melodies, but unless your tastes favor the tepid and insincere, don't bother giving this guy your valuable time. —Mark Sanders